The first time I heard the phrase was back in the spring of 1991. I was a senior in college, and I had friends who spent lots of time in the computer lab, which in my memory was a dark room lit only by green-screen CRT monitors, although I’m sure it was brighter than that. These were the days of BBSs and IRC. My friend told me about all the people he was interacting with and he called it “online community.”
In my head, I scoffed. “That’s impossible,” I thought to myself. “Community is something that can only happen in person. Nobody will ever believe in that.”
Little did I know.
Recall that these were days when you’d say that you “met” someone online, not just that you met them. “Talk” was still in quotes then too, for that matter, and we were over a decade away from “friending.”
We used to know other things then too. It was an article of common sense that telephone calls didn’t count as full communication. It was understood that facial expressions and body language are essential components and that without them, something significant is missing.
That was nearly nearly thirty years ago. Such an awareness seems nearly gone at this point.
Now most people actually seem to believe that “online community” is as legitimate as in-person community, or nearly so, rather than being the far, far cry that it is.
We are selling ourselves way short.
Of course, the online world is real in its own way. In a literal sense, it is a thing that exists. But far more is not there than is there. The whole thing is a virtual space, not a material one. We, on the contrary, are material creatures. We are elements somehow animated by the energy of life on a piece of dirt between deep waters and high clouds and… we are not alone. Though we might not be conscious of it, as material beings we are in constant intimate connection with a vast network of animals, plants, fungus, bacteria and who knows what else, experiencing all of it together in a dynamic equilibrium.
The computer conveys almost nothing of that. Nearly every detail of an online interaction is filled in by our imaginations. Additionally, the raw materials for our imaginations are increasingly sourced online, so we have a virtual world instructing us how to make a virtual world. It’s mostly—like way mostly, not just a little bit mostly—in our heads.
In terms of the physical, the online “world” is a flight of fancy.
In person, the primary way of relating to reality, including to the other creatures in it, is with our senses. We are blessed with many, from the main five (sight, hearing, smell, sense, and taste) to others like temperature, space and balance. We are all receiving a countless multitude of sensory signals every waking and sleeping moment, and they are registered by our consciousness within a mix that’s always in flux. As we move, as we breathe, everything changes.
Online, our senses are narrowed to a scant two or so, which are then abused through over-stimulation. Our state of consciousness is similarly constricted to the narrow bandwidth that can translate to the crude medium. That a big chunk of that range can be well represented by just five emoticons is revealing AF.
I am saddened. A great percentage of the population has embraced and internalized a serious delusion. My own relationship with it is more or less delusional in different moments, but aside from that there is a cultural phenomena that I cannot avoid, even if I stopped using it myself.
Collectively, people have convinced themselves that poking at shapes and colors on screens is friendship or love or connection.
But that’s just not true.
Abstract representations are all that’s going on.
We are missing out on the joys and the challenges (and the joys of challenges) that only face-to-face time offers.
This is not to say that the internet has no utility. It functions pretty well as a giant reference library, though a critical eye is a must. It also works for introducing people over distances; the more specific the shared interests—whether professional or hobby—the better. Gaming, obviously, is right at home.
But it is a measure of the diseased state of our society that so many people now think about, talk about, and relate to the online world as if it were as real as the walking around world.
This is without even getting into the corporate control of so much online space, especially social media.
We’re now about seventy years into what amounts to a national social experiment to see what happens when people focus on screens in their homes every single day for hours. And now, also out of their homes, everywhere, always in hand.
Civilized culture is basically a case of mass hypnosis already, that’s true, but on top of that, we’re pretending that a place in our heads is equivalent to a place where we can stand, look around, and participate with other forms of material life in miraculous interconnection. But the virtual is simply not the real and that is that. If someone believes otherwise, they should go bang their head against a wall, touch a hot stove burner, or witness the death of an animal. Or, for that matter, pet a kitten, eat an ice cream cone, or have an orgasm. Oh yeah, there’s a difference between online and IRL and it ain’t small.
So I am sad. I know there are many lonely people trying to fill a basic human need and they are settling for this fakery. Sometimes I’m one of them. But one might as well claim that double-tapping food porn on Instagram provides calories to a hungry body. It doesn’t. It won’t. It can’t.
We live in an era of crisis. We are threatened by war, tyranny and environmental disaster. If the online world has a part to play in facing these things, it is very small, and the sooner we accept that and break out of our delusions, the better.